With less sunlight and bitter temperatures, winter has a bad rep when it comes to staying healthy. But just because the weather's cold, are you more likely to get sick? We spoke to experts about the biggest winter health myths to get to the truth once and for all.
You've probably heard the old warning that going outside in chilly weather for an extended period of time can make you "catch" a cold. According to D.J. Verret, M.D., an otolaryngologist in Dallas, this is not true. "Going outside — with or without a wet head — is one of the best things you can do to prevent catching a cold. Actually being cold has nothing to do with your risk of catching a cold. Colds are caused by viruses or bacteria which are more often spread in the winter because of close from everyone being indoors." That's right, it's possible that spending time outdoors can make you less susceptible to those nasty germs.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that is essential to our immune system — and many believe that consuming this vitamin in excess during the winter can prevent colds. However, a review of 29 studies published in Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that regular vitamin C consumption does not prevent the common cold, but it may reduce the severity of symptoms and recovery time.
With grey, dreary skies and low temperatures, it seems natural to assume that depression spikes in the winter, but health experts say that's just a myth. "Contrary to popular belief, major depression is not more rampant during the winter months than at any other time of the year," says John Sharp, M.D., a professor at Harvard University and author of the new book The Emotional Calendar. But what about the wintertime sadness you may be feeling? "The 'holiday blues' is a significant, temporary, stress-related condition, but it is not a recognized medical ailment or diagnosis," he says. Some people may experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which has symptoms similar to depression, such as insomnia, irritability, and difficulty concentrating, but it only occurs during the winter months.
Your mom may have raised you to believe that there's something magical about chicken soup when it comes to treating a cold or the flu. Well, according to Dr. Sharp, there's definitely some real science behind this. Chicken soup can have a positive effect on the immune system because of its ability to stimulate neutrophil aggregation, which means "bringing white blood cells together." White blood cells help fight off infection in your body so you feel better faster. While it's not clear if other broths or hot beverages have similar immune system benefits, Dr. Sharp says hot liquids like tea and broth can help reduce the symptoms of a cold or flu virus, relieving sinus and throat pain.
We've all heard this one — and perhaps it worries you when you're out with your children during the winter months. If they don't wear a hat in the cold, is it drawing dangerous amounts of warmth from their bodies? According to Dr. Sharp, "it's largely a myth." While it's true that you'll lose heat from any part of your body that is exposed to the elements and not covered with clothing, forgetting a hat "is not a major health risk," he assures. "You're no better off in shorts and a hat than warm pants and no hat."
You may be unmotivated to lace up your running shoes and head out into the cold, but if you're worried that the chilly weather is bad for your health, you shouldn't be. "It's fine to exercise in the cold, just make sure you warm up first," Dr. Sharp says. That may mean doing some dynamic stretches, walking a bit before starting on a vigorous run, or avoiding a big hill until you're acclimated to the temperature. Sudden physical exertion in cold weather can, at times, be a risk for cardiovascular strain — for example, leaving your armchair and heading outside to vigorously shovel snow.
Itchy, flaky skin can be an irritating and unsightly consequence of cold, dry air. But should you just write it off as a winter annoyance? No, says Dr. Jaliman. Dry skin, if not kept at bay, can be a portal for infection. "It's very important to keep dry skin hydrated," she says. When skin becomes dry, it can lead to small cracks that can leave your body prone to infections. To prevent this, moisturize twice daily — after you shower and before bed — as well as throughout the day for body parts that are prone to dryness, like your hands. "I like Aquaphor," says Dr. Jaliman. "It's inexpensive and effective."
What you'll need: Aquaphor ($18 for 3 jars, .com)
When winter hits and the sun seems to all but disappear, the thought of hibernation sounds appealing, doesn't it? But that sleepy feeling you may get in the winter doesn't mean you should always let yourself snooze for longer. "While it's natural to want to be cozier and be in bed more, we don't technically need more sleep," Dr. Sharp says. Instead, it's likely that the scarcity of sunlight in the winter months makes us think we're sleepy. There's nothing wrong with going to bed earlier, but beware of sleeping too much. "Some people find that when they get more sleep, they feel sleepier during the day, even a little dazed."
Winter can be cold and cloudy, so many think they can retire their sunscreen until sunny days at the beach. But according to Debra Jaliman, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologist, you should definitely be using sunscreen in the winter: "The sun and UV rays are present winter, spring, summer, and fall," she says. "I recommend that you wear a sunscreen with SPF 30, and it's best to wear a UVA/UVB blocker. The best ones contain zinc or titanium."
What you’ll need: Neutrogena zinc face sunscreen ($9 per bottle, .com)
Frostbite may sound like a condition suffered only by hardcore ski enthusiasts. But not only is frostbite easy to get, it's more common than you think, says Dr. Jaliman, who got a case of frostbite after an afternoon on the slopes. When skin — usually on the hands and feet — becomes too cold or wet, it can become slightly numb and then blister. "If blisters occur, then there may be damage and the skin may turn black," Dr. Jaliman says. "Then you may become insensitive to heat and cold in the future. With further damage, you may suffer nerve damage and lose fingers and toes." This can happen fast, even in just 30 minutes, and don't think that it needs to be -10°F for you to run into trouble. "The temperature can be relatively warm at 32°F, but it's more about how long the bare skin is exposed. Also, wet skin is very vulnerable."
In the winter, there's good and bad news for allergy sufferers, Dr. Verret says. "If you have pollen allergies, they will be better in the winter, but if you're sensitive to indoor allergens, such as pet dander or dust mites, your allergies may be even worse." So although your sneezing and sniffling may not be from seasonal culprits, your indoor allergies could be more bothersome than usual.